Michigan Panthers Shock Philadelphia In USFL Comeback Thriller

Michigan Panthers Shock Philadelphia In USFL Comeback Thriller

It all came down to this. The final game of the USFL regular season saw the Michigan Panthers and Philadelphia Stars face off in a pivotal position: fighting for the final playoff berth.

It’s been quite the season for the Philadelphia Stars so far. After a rough start, they won three straight games, which pushed them to first in the North Division. However, two losses in a row left the door open for Michigan and Pittsburgh to sneak in at the last moment.

The Michigan Panthers have been in rut, losing six of their last seven. When these groups faced off in week two, Michigan was a completely different team, dominating in a 24-10 win.

Mike Nolan made quite the move ahead of this game. Josh Love, who has started nine straight games, is inactive. Newly signed E.J. Perry will be seeing his first minutes of the entire season, with everything on the line.

Let’s take a look at what went down in this affair, as it was an electrifying way to end the USFL regular season.

First Quarter

To kick things off, Philadelphia received the football. It was an outstanding opening drive, as Case Cookus and the Stars marched right down the field. Cookus found Terry Wright deep in the corner of the endzone, who made a diving catch to put the team up 7-0.

Michigan took the field with EJ Perry, and saw a bit of success. However, Cole Murphy missed a 53 yard field goal attempt, so the Panthers came up empty.

With how long both of these possessions were, the first quarter came to a close with each team handling the ball only once.

Second Quarter

Philadelphia marched the length of the field once again, taking their time getting into Michigan’s red zone. This time, the Panthers defense held strong, which resulted in a 28 yard field goal from Luis Aguilar.

While Michigan’s offense struggled mightily, special teams stepped up. Marcus Simms had a big-time return, which allowed Cole Murphy to knock through a field goal.

The Stars would once again get into Panthers territory, but could not find a way to score a touchdown. Luckily, they feature one of the USFL’s best kickers, as Luis Aguilar hit a 53 yarder with no issues. Philadelphia took a 13-3 lead, with firm control.

Marcus Simms would come up clutch once again. This time, he took a kick deep into Stars territory, setting up the offense in prime position to make something happen. Even though the Panthers would settle for another field goal, Simms was building something that would carry over into the second half.

Philadelphia’s final drive of the half would arguably be their best. Cookus was on point, making plays time and time again to push the ball down the field. With less than a minute to go, he threw a strike to Diondre Overton, who made a sensational catch through contact.

Heading into halftime, the Philadelphia Stars held a commanding 20-6 lead over the Michigan Panthers.

Third Quarter

Michigan opened up the second half with a bang. EJ Perry lofted a pass to Trey Quinn, who made a ridiculous one handed grab to move the chains. This sparked something offensively, which ultimately led to another Cole Murphy field goal.

Both defenses stood strong over the next couple of drives, as each team sent the ball back and forth to one another. Then, Marcus Simms made another massive play. He blocked Lirim Hajrullahu’s punt, and AJ Richardson returned it to the house for Michigan’s first touchdown of the game.

Special teams would continue to be a thorn in Philadelphia’s side this half. Luis Aguilar – who’s been arguably the most reliable kicker in the league – came up just short on a 50 yard field goal attempt. This left the door wide open for Michigan heading into the final period, and they took full advantage of it.

Fourth Quarter

EJ Perry came into his own during the second half. His mobility was a welcomed sight, as he used his legs on multiple occasions to stretch plays, keeping things moving. Considering Josh Love was such a strict pocket passer, it was refreshing to see Perry avoiding the pressure.

A broken play resulted in a score, as a fumbled snap was picked up by EJ Perry, who scrambled into the end zone – putting Michigan in front for the first time. This sent Ford Field into a frenzy, giving the fans renewed hope for the first time all season.

The two point attempt was miraculously successful, with Perry launching a prayer to Marcus Baugh who came down with it.

It was all downhill for the Stars offense from here. Bart Andrus made a gutsy decision to go for it on fourth and long, which did not pay off, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Despite a couple of late punts and opportunities, Philadelphia could not recapture the fire they had offensively in the first half. Reggie Corbin sealed the deal rushing for a first down, which sent the sidelines and stands into a dramatic scene.

The Michigan Panthers would hold on for a remarkable win at home, 23-20 over the Philadelphia Stars – clinching a USFL playoff berth.

Standout Playmakers

QB EJ Perry: While his stat-line doesn’t pop off the charts, Perry played quite well in his first ever start in the USFL. You have to give him a lot of credit for leading the team to a comeback victory, despite spending such little time with the squad. Perry posted over 160 total yards and a rushing TD in his USFL debut.

WR Marcus Simms: What a special teams performance it was from Simms, who put the team on his back on multiple occasions. His two massive returns, alongside the blocked punt turned out to be the difference in this game. Without his efforts, the Panthers would likely not be on their way to Canton.

LB Frank Ginda: Serious question: when is Frank Ginda not listed as a standout playmaker? Mike Nolan calls him an “intelligent player”, and for good reason. He is the signal caller for the Panthers defense, and once again led them tonight with 12 tackles and 1 PD. Ginda finishes the season with 105 total tackles, leading the USFL.

DB Sean Mahone: Someone who’s had an underrated season for Michigan is Sean Mahone, doing his job well in 2023. Mahone posted six tackles, and two TFL tonight, making multiple hustle plays on the defensive side of the football.

DE Breeland Speaks: Breeland Speaks wraps up his exceptional USFL season with a respectable six tackle outing. He’s been a pillar defensively all year long, and now has an opportunity to chase a USFL title with the Michigan Panthers.

Philadelphia Stars

QB Case Cookus: The Chef left it all on the field today. Cookus does a bit of everything for Philadelphia, and unfortunately came up just short. For three straight games he balled out, yet the Stars couldn’t find a way to win. Cookus finished his USFL season throwing for 247 yards and two scores in the loss, while adding 48 yards on the ground.

WR Terry Wright: Wright stepped up in a big way for Philadelphia, both as a wide receiver and on special teams. After the injuries to Jordan Suell and Chris Rowland, Wright filled right in, and seemingly got better with each week. His future is bright, no doubt about it.

LB Joel Dublanko: Joel doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done in Philadelphia. He joined the team midseason, and instantly made their defense better. Dublanko posted nine tackles tonight, and absolutely should see some NFL interest in the offseason.

Post-Game Comments

Post-game, we had the chance to speak with Michigan Panthers HC Mike Nolan, asking about the halftime adjustments the team made. His response is quite fascinating, and goes to show how resilient this team truly is. Take a listen:

We spoke with Philadelphia Stars HC Bart Andrus post-game, and he broke down a couple key components to the matchup for us:

Q: “Coach, as you said it was a tale of two halves. That blocked punt certainly was a turning point, can you take me through what happened there, and how the rest of the half played out because of it?”

A: “We had, just from looking at it quickly on the sidelines, we had two of our players that just really whiffed on blocks. Allowed that to happen. The scheme was fine, it’s something we’ve done well all year – but two guys took a play off, and you end up with a blocked punt for a touchdown.”

Q: “Secondly, you played EJ Perry today instead of Josh Love, were you expecting that to be the case – and how did you scheme differently playing against Perry instead?”

A: “We had heard earlier in the week that a change would be made. These guys are in the same buildings for meetings. We practice at the same spots, we share a locker room, it wasn’t a secret. They changed, really, what they do on offense. It wasn’t a shock to us, it was what we expected. They were going to go to the run game, and try to win with defense. It worked out in their favor, and more so with the special teams errors we had. Every time we had a good return, we had a penalty. In that second half, we were our own worst enemy.”

Final Thoughts

Who would’ve thought: the Michigan Panthers are officially going to the USFL playoffs. It’s been quite the season for Mike Nolan and this team, weathering some major storms. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. This final game proved exactly that.

Heading into the postseason, now this squad will have to prepare to face off against a stout Pittsburgh Maulers team. This is a unit that they lost to twice already this season. However, with EJ Perry at the helm, that could certainly change the way things play out compared to the previous two matchups.

What a disappointing end to the USFL season for the Philadelphia Stars. After winning three straight to move to 4-3, the Stars could not close things out, losing the final three games. They had their opportunities to clinch, but could not get the job done. Bart Andrus will have quite a bit to review in the offseason, as injuries derailed what could’ve been a successful 2023 campaign.

The Michigan Panthers and Pittsburgh Maulers will play for the North Division title in Canton, at 8pm ET Saturday on NBC.

What are your thoughts on this USFL matchup between the Michigan Panthers and Philadelphia Stars? Which USFL players impressed? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!